Monday, January 10, 2005

Intelligent Design in Public Schools: Can It Pass the Legal Test?

One of the cultural hotspots today is the topic of teaching Intelligent Design in public schools. At the center of the storm is the debate about whether ID is explicitly religious and would therefore be constitutionally excluded from public schools, or not explicitly religious and therefore fair ground for public school curriculum.

Francis Beckwith makes the legal argument that ID is not explicitly religious in the way the Supreme Court has defined things, and as a result would be able to pass the test necessary to become a part of public school classes. An extensive article he wrote on this issue for the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy can be found on his website. A condensed version of the same argument can be found in his chapter, “Darwin, Design and the Public Schools” in the book, To Everyone An Answer: A Case For The Christian Worldview.

The argument has two fundamental components: How has the Supreme Court defined an explicitly religious teaching, and can the ID argument accurately be described in such a was as to pass that test.

First, the Supreme Court standard harkens back to Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987 from which four basic components can be drawn. A teaching about the origin of life is explicitly religious and cannot be taught in public schools if:

1. it has strong historical continuity with the Scopes trial and the creationism debate;
2. it has strong textual ties to Genesis;
3. the supporters have strong religious motivations (evangelism);
4. it supports illegitimate means (i.e. teaching religion) to reach legitimate means (i.e. freedom of speech).

Beckwith then continues to explain that ID would pass this test (the Edwards test) given the nature of the science. He outlines ID in this way:

A. If an apparently designed entity exhibits specified complexity (SC), one is warranted in inferring tha the entity is the result of and intelligent agent.
B. SC can be reliably detected by an explanatory filter.
C. The irreducible complexity of some biological systems and the fine-tuning of the universe for the existence of life are instances of specified complexity.
D. Presupposing methodological naturalism (MN) and relying exclusively on its resources (i.e. chance and necessity) cannot account for SC in the instances listed in C.
E. Thus one cannot exclude ID from serious consideration because it is inconsistent with an a priori commitment to MN.
F. Therefore, given A through E, ID best accounts for the irreducible complexity of some biological systems and the fine-tuning of the universe for life.

There is, in this accurate description of ID, no reference to Genesis, no shared ancestry with Scopes, no intent to convert people to a religious faith, and no Trojan Horse containing Christian doctrine. ID breaks from what is typically labeled creationism in these important ways, and places its emphasis on the science of its claims, not the theology of its claims. To be sure there are plenty of theists of one stripe or another in the ID camp of scientists and philosophers, but many of its prominent proponents are not theists at all. (Beckwith notes some of this in great detail in the article noted above.)

Because there is so much mud being thrown at the ID movement at this point in time, this argument is an important one to keep in mind. No matter the validity or soundness of ID’s arguments or science, it would pass the legal test allowing it to become a part of public school curriculum.

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